OK, here’s the deal…

Tennessee is not good enough to play for an SEC championship, or an SEC East title. Nor are the Volunteers good enough to win a banner of any sort with their defense playing at this level.

But boy, oh boy, do those kids play hard.

Against Kentucky, the Vols defense was on the field for 99 plays, and gave up 42 points, and over 600 yards of offense, and 45 minutes of possession. UT even gave up a 4th and 24 late in the fourth quarter of a 3 point game yet still found a way to win.

I have seen way too many Tennessee teams over the years when moments like that 4th down led to as many negatives as possible.  But this time it didn’t matter. Tennessee was physically, and more importantly mentally, better prepared than its opponent.

For the purposes of this article let’s not look too much at that fourth quarter, at least for a moment.

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Sports betting in Tennessee officially launched on November 1, 2020, and many of the largest sportsbooks are live and operating in the volunteer state. Tennessee is only one of a handful of SEC football states with legalized sports betting.

On offense, Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker threw 316 yards and 4 TD passes on the night. Wide receivers Velus Jones Jr., Cedric Tillman and JaVonta Payton were beasts with a combined 257 yards receiving and 3 touchdowns.

Yes, even with that success in the air, the other offensive component was a problem. Tennessee couldn’t run effectively. The stat sheet says the Vols picked up 145 yards on the ground but sometimes numbers don’t tell the real story. It didn’t feel like that many.

Even though the Vols struggled to rush the football, it didn’t matter. They scored 45 points on their way to their 5th win this season.

I’m not sure how many Tennessee teams under Lane Kiffin, Derek Dooley, Butch Jones or Jeremy Pruitt would have been victorious in Saturday night’s contest, but it couldn’t have been that many. Far too many of those teams would have laid down at the initial sight of negativity. There were talent issues at times but the bigger problem was with the competitive nature of those squads.

Late in the fourth quarter on Saturday, Tennessee’s offense had a chance to put the game away, then saw a field goal that could have pushed the margin to six points go wide.

That forced a Tennessee defense that was gassed to go back onto the field to save the day…and did just that.

Oh, and that 4th and 24 play? Tennessee defensive coordinator Tim Banks learned from his mistakes. On that play, he rushed only 3 guys and got burned on a 28-yard gain. When facing 4th and 10 only 4 plays later, Banks rushed 5 and UK never had a chance to convert as Will Levis’ pass fell incomplete.

That was only one play in a game of many. Let’s go through the heroes for the Tennessee defense. Jeremy Banks, who gets better every week, tied for the team lead with 14 tackles. Aaron Beasley had his best game as a Vol, also with 14 tackles. Defensive back Alontae Taylor had a huge pick 6 in the second half.

There will be a time in the future when Tennessee will have a full allotment of players. UT won’t have a defense running on fumes. The Vols will have an offense that can put teams away sooner than later.

Josh Heupel deserves a boatload of respect for what he has done with this program. To me, those wins and losses aren’t as important right now. It’s the gritty nature of this team that will be remembered for years to come.

Next week the Vols host top ranked Georgia and that will be a tough day. Then they get South Alabama and Vanderbilt. Win just one of those and Tennessee will head for a bowl game.

Who could have seen that coming back in August?